BOOK REVIEW: Cognitive Neuroscience: A Very Short Introduction by Richard Passingham

Cognitive Neuroscience: A Very Short IntroductionCognitive Neuroscience: A Very Short Introduction by Richard Passingham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book provides a brief overview of cognitive neuroscience, a discipline that has really only been around for the past few decades, one that uses technologies allowing scientists to see what parts of the brain are active during a given mental activity. The reader learns what parts of the brain are involved in the various activities of being human from perception through action, and what can go wrong with these processes. While that sounds simple and straightforward, the immense complexity of the brain makes it anything but, and there is a lot of medical jargon and qualifying statements to explain how a given relationship between brain location and activity isn’t as simple or well understood as we are frequently led to believe. [Any plain and direct explanation of the brain workings is likely to be at best partial truth, and more likely outright deceptive.]

I found the organization of this book to be logical and conducive to learning about this complex and technical topic. The first chapter, “A Recent Field,” describes what cognitive neuroscience is and where it fits in among the various sciences that deal with mental activity including, psychology, psychiatry, etc. This gives one an idea of both how cognitive neuroscience can contribute to our understanding of mental activity, but also where its limitations lie and why it has not displaced all the other disciplines.

Chapters two through eight make up the core of the book and present an exploration of the various aspects of mental activity and what has been learned about them through studies in this field. The progression is logical and elementary: perception (Ch. 2,) attention (Ch. 3,) memory (Ch. 4,) reasoning (Ch. 5,) decision (Ch. 6,) confirmation / checking (Ch. 7,) and finally action (Ch. 8.) In each chapter practical questions are discussed, questions that will be of interest to readers whose goal is not vocabular expansion, in addition to the discussion of what brain region is involved with what activity. What kinds of questions? How amputees “feel” pain from the missing part of the body? Why humans suck at multitasking, and under what circumstances they can do better at it? How come people who have amnesia remember how to talk and engage in physical activities? Is there free will, and – if so – in what sense? Do we think in language? Etc.

The last chapter reflects upon the future of the discipline. Over the course of the book, the reader learns the limitations of what functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans can tell one about what is happening with the brain, and in this chapter one is introduced to the next generation of technologies that may take our level of understanding to another level.

This book has an excellent feature that I don’t recall seeing in other AVSI books. (That is probably, in part, because many of them don’t need it like this one because their subject matter is more readily grasped.) Said feature is a text box at the beginning of the chapter that asks some relatively rudimentary and practical questions, and then – at the end of the chapter – those questions are answered in another box. I think the author recognized that there was a high degree of risk of losing readers if the entire book was, “and when you do decide how many minutes to microwave your Hot Pocket, the temporo-parietal junction works in conjunction with the …” [not an actual quote fragment] he would produce book of limited benefit. [i.e. it would be too technical for the neophyte reader who just wants some practical insight (the AVSI target demographic,) but not technical enough for students of brain anatomy.] These text boxes help keep the reader focused on what is being conveyed while not getting too caught up in arcane terminology.

Other ancillary matter includes graphics (photographs of technology and readouts and diagrams showing where brain areas are located,) references, and a further reading section.

I found this book to have some intriguing discussions on interesting topics. That said, those discussions are interlaced with some necessarily complicated and dense subject matter (that’s the nature of the discipline.) That said, I think the author recognized his challenge and the question boxes and answer boxes that bookended the core chapters were very useful in offering focus for a non-expert reader. It you want a bare-bones overview of cognitive neuroscience, it’s worth reading this slim volume.

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